Tuesday, October 25, 2005

City of Saints & Madmen - Jeff Vandermeer

I just found seven words of interest on the spine. Now I'm tempted to forgo this verdict and spend my time putting these words where they need to go, but perhaps not. Wouldn't want to end the world. This is the price I pay for buying hardcovers and then putting the dust jackets aside so they don't get damaged. There's an entire story on this dust jacket, and only now have I read it.

It's a good sized book. Just the right amount of heft, with a loose spine that isn't too stiff, and cover art that is just gorgeous.

And it has pictures.

I'm not so old that I don't get excited over a novel with pictures. Not even pictures, do some fancy formatting, get carried away with borders, use footnotes: break the monotonous block of text, and I'll adore it for no reason. The King Squid plates are fantastic, and the Disney mushroom dwellers hold a special place in my heart.

City isn't a novel, but it's not quite a collection of short stories. It could be the dossier of a man gone mad, a hallucination, it could be an anthropological study of a city on no map of ours. Whatever you chose it to be, it is brilliant.

(Oh no, she's going to gush.)

Dradin, In Love
It's a false beginning to the book. It is, perhaps, the only adhering-to-the-standard-definition-of short story. The reader is Dradin, who has just stumbled into Ambergris from the jungles, and as we are new to the city, so is he. Not a walking tour, but a shamble, a stagger, and a run for your life. Dradin is a sad man, and instead of wanting to shake his naivety from him, I just want to pat him sadly on the shoulder. It's a rich story, so very textured, and Ambergris completely overwhelms all else. It isn't a setting, it's a character, and we quickly learn so much from it. Full of life, of wonder, of mess, and full of death. The Festival of the Freshwater Squid unsettles me, whenever it is mentioned. This is the only good look you'll get of that Festival, and I didn't want to look any further. O thought this story was wonderful, beautifully written, and yet, so quickly overshadowed.

The Hoegbottom Guide to the Early History of Ambergris
Suddenly, from literature to comedy. Should I have found this so amusing? It's non-fiction, a historical account of the city, dotted in highly opinionated and subjective footnotes from a snooty history who has, I think, a severe chip on his shoulder. I do love pieces of history, and I swallowed this whole. It was wonderful. I sat on Flinders Street Station at 11.30pm, not used to catching trains after dark and more than a little threatened by the vagrants that wandered the platforms, and this story made me forget all that. No, it isn't a story. The mushroom dwellers fascinate me, as all things that are mysteries must. The Silence chilled me, left me raw and horrified, especially that little gesture, what they did leave behind. I thought this was the best in the book. I was afraid everything would be left standing in its shadow.

The Transformation of Martin Lake
It's good to be wrong.
I'm hopeless at writing about that which I truly love. Things that get me into a tizzy, things that make me giddy with delight and incoherant with joy; I'm left gobsmacked. This story gobsmacked me. I use the word brilliant too much, but it is, it's an amazingly brilliant story. It narrates one of the greatest events in the life of Martin Lake, a soon to be famous painter, broken up with pieces artistic criticism and history. One stream of what really happened, and another stream of what others guess might have possibly happened. The chasm between truth and speculation is enormous, but usually they're on the opposite sides. No one could have guess what truly happened, it seems wild, crazy, more like rumour that the speculation does.
But most of all, what won me over was the paintings.
This story doesn't have pictures, but in the art historian steam, there are descriptions of Lake's work, after the event. They were beautiful. I came out of that story feeling heavy, that I would never be able to see the paintings described. I want to, oh I want to.

It is the footnotes, the art history, that makes Ambergris not a story, but a city. It lives.

The Strange Case of X
This controls the rest of the book. Alas, the twist at the end came as no surprise for me, for it was what I'd assumed from the first page. I thought that was all that story was, until it hit me. Vandermeer was doing something I'd never seen before, doing something I can only think of as brilliant, brilliant, and entirely unapologetically.

The chapbook on King Squid had me in stitches, at work no less. "Remove your tentacle from my birthing canal immediately!" and my favourite:
Their annual celebration, held at roughly the same time as the modern day Festival, culminated with the choosing of one man to hunt the scuttlefish. Given that the average Mothean Scuttlefish, flattened against the riverbed, forms a circle roughly six feet across and that their primary defense consists of stuffing as much of their invertebrate bodies as possible down their attacker's mouth and other available orifices- at which point I choked and died, and had to explain to my supervisor exactly why I was dead. Not one of my finest moments.

I was quite entranced by The Cage. It was a strange story, but Vandermeer knows how to work mystery, how to drop the right revelation that is not a revelation at the right time. An air of quiet menace fills the entire story, as mushrooms can only ever be quiet, soft, and still.

He merged the writer with the world, the world with the writer.

This book left me tizzy. I didn't enjoy it, it enjoyed me, and blew me away. Tizzy, giddy, terribly excited by all that had been done, and all the possibilities that could follow. I enjoy so many books (except The Phantom Menace), but there are only a very few, a mere handful of books that shake the foundations of my mind, break down the walls, and give me the opportunity to build something new. This is one of those very rare, very special books. There is no writer out there who should not read this, there's so much too learn from simple good writing on a sentence level, to genius.

But genius can't be learned.

Verdict: Please, do yourself a favour, and read this. Please. I beg you. The tizziness must be spread.


  1. I only read "Dradin, In Love", back when, and put the book down after that. It was my first exposure to van der Meer, and it... I don't know... the atmosphere felt far too miserable. It didn't feel like something I'd read for fun. (Despite also having browsed ahead to the back of the book, and being very intrigued at the weirdness there.)

    I'll give it another try though.

  2. It's become one of my favorite books and I'm amazed at how he put it together. It has such range and yet it all works so well together.

    I have often thought that I would like to write like Jeff, but I don't think I ever will...